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Phones

9 tech tips I learned while traveling abroad

Before you take a trip outside the country, make sure you're technologically prepared.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If you don't do it often (or ever), traveling to another country can be challenging. Scary, even. During a recent trip to Italy, I found myself staring down the barrel of a language I couldn't speak, read or understand.

Thankfully, I had modern technology at my disposal, and that made the travel life infinitely easier. You do need to plan ahead, though, so allow me to share what I learned during my summer vacation.

Know your phone

First things first: Will your phone work abroad? It all depends on how you use it.

For example, once you get connected to a Wi-Fi network, whether it's at the airport, a hotel or a sidewalk cafe, you're golden: You can check email, update Facebook and use data-powered communication apps such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. (iMessage is kind of a special case, though; see below.)

However, for standard calls and text messages, to say nothing of using apps when Wi-Fi isn't available, you need access to a cellular network, same as you do here.

But! You need to make sure your phone is not only unlocked, but also network-compatible in the country or countries you're visiting. Here in the US, we have AT&T and T-Mobile running GSM networks, while Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. Overseas, the majority of countries use GSM. (China and Ukraine are among the handful that support CDMA.)

Many phones, including the last few generations of Apple, Google, Motorola and Samsung models, support both kinds of networks. Thus, even if you use a CDMA network here, you should have no trouble switching to GSM there. But if your phone is CDMA-only and you're traveling to a GSM-only country, you may be limited to Wi-Fi-only activities. If that's the case, it might be worth buying an inexpensive GSM-compatible Android phone to use just while traveling.

SIM in advance

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Traveling abroad? Slap a KnowRoaming sticker on your SIM card and it'll automatically connect to a local network once you arrive.

KnowRoaming

Conventional wisdom says that once you reach a foreign country, you should just buy a SIM card and switch over to it while you're there.

I don't agree. For starters, you need service the moment you land, whether it's to summon an Uber or just text family that you've arrived safely. You may be able to find a SIM vendor at the airport, but do you really want to rely on that? What if there's a language barrier or you need tech help?

My advice: Get your SIM card in advance. You may pay slightly higher rates overall, but you'll also be good to roam as soon as the plane touches down.

I recommend KnowRoaming, which comes in two flavors: a straight-up replacement for your existing SIM card and a sticker that permanently affixes to your existing card -- effectively putting two SIMs in your phone at once.

I had the opportunity to test both in Italy, and for the most part they worked very well. The big challenge -- as with virtually any SIM swap -- is that you inherit a new phone number, which can cause text-messaging complications. More on that below.

KnowRoaming's call and message rates are cheap, and you can buy an unlimited-data package for $8 per day. Local pay-as-you-go rates may well be cheaper, but I think $8 is extremely reasonable given the convenience.

Beat two-factor authentication

Because of the whole new-number thing, I discovered midvacation that I couldn't reset a Twitter password, which I needed to do because reasons, and therefore could no longer access that account. That's because it uses two-factor authentication, meaning that in order to verify my identify, I have to verify receipt of a text message. But I couldn't do that because my primary number wasn't accessible while I was using the foreign SIM. Hmmm.

The solution: plan ahead. Before leaving, make sure all critical accounts -- bank, email, work, Facebook, Twitter -- are set to verify your identity using a different method. This might be a secondary email account or an app like Authy or Google Authenticator. (Indeed, CNET's Matt Elliott recommends using an authentication app full-time.)

Learn the mysteries of iMessage

If you're an iPhone user, iMessage is pretty great -- until you find yourself with a different phone number. Then things get... complicated.

Consider: iMessage relies on data, not SMS, so you'd think that as long as you're connected to the internet (Wi-Fi or data plan), you're fine. But iMessage is still tied to your phone number, and if you change that number (like when you swap SIM cards), things go tilt. At least, that's what happened with the four members of my family.

I won't bore you with the details, other than to suggest that iPhone users wanting to communicate with other iPhone users should plan ahead. For starters, consider tweaking iMessage so that it uses your email address for sending and receiving texts. (You can do this in the Settings app by tapping Messages > Send & Receive, then selecting your email address in both the "can be reached" and "start new conversations from" sections.)

That's still a messy solution, because existing messaging threads may no longer work, and you'll have to switch everything back when you're back to your home SIM.

Thus, I have the same recommendation for iPhone users that I do for everyone...

Use a third-party messaging app

SMS overseas is a hassle any way you slice it, in part because of the cost, and in part because of your new phone number. A much better bet: some other messaging app.

Take Facebook Messenger. It needs only data, and it's not tied to your phone number. Using it overseas is exactly the same experience as using it at home. Plus, you can use it to make voice or video calls -- again with just data. The catch, of course, is that you can only call or message other Facebook Messenger users.

The same is true of many of other messaging apps, including the venerable WhatsApp, which is why I consider TextNow a great choice for the overseas traveler. It assigns you a phone number that stays the same regardless of your SIM selection, and it can send messages to non-TextNow users. (Inbound messages can also be delivered via email, a helpful backup copy of sorts.)

However, TextNow can handle only some short-code messages, meaning you may get flight alerts from your airline and you may not. Indeed, any new number you use while traveling could put a crimp in text-based notifications, another reason to plan ahead and make sure you can get notifications a different way, such as email.

Now Playing: Watch this: 3 ways to use Google Translate when you travel
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Google Translate FTW

I have a working knowledge of French, but I speak zero Italian. That meant I couldn't read menus, ask for the nearest bathroom or figure out how gas pumps work.

Luckily, I had the godsend that is Google Translate (Android and iOS). This free app made it a cinch to convert English words and phrases -- either spoken or typed -- into Italian, while the camera mode magically translated printed Italian text (the aforementioned signs and menus) into English.

For a variety of reasons, the success rate of the latter was on the lower side, with occasionally hilarious results. But at the least it helped to decipher key words, which was invaluable.

Google Translate can perform on-the-fly translations when you're online, but it can also work offline if you download translation databases. To save time (and data) while traveling, download languages in advance. Tap the Settings icon, then Offline translation. Tap the plus sign in the upper-left corner, then choose the language you want to download.

Download Google Maps in advance

Likewise, Google Maps has an offline mode that could really save the day if you're in a signal-challenged location. Because I was traveling from Rome to Florence and back again, I downloaded map data that encompassed both of those cities and everything in between. The resulting file consumed close to 300MB of storage, but it was well worth it.

To use this feature, just open Google Maps and zoom in or out until you see the chunk of map you want to save. Then tap the Menu icon, followed by Offline maps. Now tap Custom map, make your final tweaks to the desired map area and then tap Download. (Note that by default, Maps will download maps only when you're connected to Wi-Fi. If you want to allow this over a mobile network, tap the gear icon and choose that option.)

Take note, too, that offline maps work for driving directions, but not biking, walking or transit directions.

Bring extra power plugs

So you bought a universal power adapter -- good start. That'll let you plug in exactly one device, which may end up being your spouse's curling iron. One measly travel adapter isn't enough, especially if it gives you just one electrical outlet.

Instead, just as you would for travel at home, pack a country-compatible wall plug that offers not only a pass-through for electrical items, but also two to four USB ports -- the kind you need for charging your phone, tablet, Bluetooth earbuds and Bluetooth speaker. Speaking of which...

Bring a speaker

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This speaker is easy to travel with and plays for up to 24 hours on a charge.

Sarah Tew/CNET

OK, this holds true for travel anywhere, not just to other countries. But I can't tell you much we enjoyed listening to Spotify's Italian favorites playlist over breakfast in the morning; it just added to the flavor of the experience.

A good travel speaker should be compact and lightweight, of course, but with enough oomph to make it worth schlepping. 

For example, the Tribit XSound Go (currently $36 at Amazon) won't add much bulk to your carry-on, but runs for up to 24 hours on a charge and even offers an IPX7 waterproof design. It's a CNET favorite, but just one option of many.

And that's it! Do you have any international-travel tips of your own to share?

Originally published on Jan. 5, 2017.
Update, July 10, 2018: Added new tips and links.